The onslaught of illegal miners into Indigenous territory in the Brazilian Amazon has destroyed forest, polluted rivers, and brought disease and malnutrition to the Yanomami people. Now, the new Brazilian government is confronting a health crisis and moving to evict the miners.
Emaciated chests, distended bellies, limbs like sticks — the images of malnourished infants and elderly that have emerged in recent weeks from the Yanomami Indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon resemble the worst of the famines in Ethiopia, Sudan, or North Korea. The humanitarian disaster in this forest region, however, was not caused by crop failure or war, but by illegal mining and genocidal neglect by the state.
An investigation by our Amazon-based news platform Sumaúma found that 570 infants under the age of five died of preventable diseases in the past four years, a 29 percent increase over the previous four years. One starving three-year-old child weighed less than 8 pounds, about the size that would normally be expected of a healthy newborn. Others vomit worms. With little food and no medicine, diarrhea and pneumonia become fatal diseases. The primary cause is an invasion of illegal gold miners, who have brought disease, violence, and environmental degradation.
“This is a very severe humanitarian crisis. The worst in my lifetime,” Junior Hekurari Yanomami, head of the Yanomami and Ye’kuana Indigenous Health District Council told us. “Everyone is sick. There are severe food problems. The miners have contaminated the water. We need them to leave.”
The crisis is a chance for Lula’s administration to demonstrate it is ready to protect the Amazon rather than exploiting it.
The crisis in the country’s biggest Indigenous territory is now the first major test of new president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s commitment to restore the resilience of both the forest and its guardians. Following the January 9 attempted coup in Brasilia by a far-right mob loyal to the previous president, Jair Bolsonaro, it is also a chance for the new administration to demonstrate that it is in control and ready to pay more attention to protecting the Amazon rather than exploiting it.
At the heart of the matter is a long-overdue understanding among environmentalists that the best way to protect the forest is to protect its traditional inhabitants. Indigenous peoples are part of its habitats, experts in managing resources sustainably, and best placed to defend against encroachment by extractive industries. Countless studies back this up, but it is only now, under the new Lula administration, that Brazil, the most biodiverse nation on Earth, is committed to putting this fully into practice by giving more land and power to Indigenous peoples and by promising to use the power of the state to protect them.
From the first day of his presidency, Lula said he was prepared to take the necessary steps to defend the rainforest and its inhabitants. In his inaugural address on January 1, he said, “Indigenous peoples … are not obstacles to development — they are guardians of our rivers and forests and a fundamental part of our greatness as a nation.” Earlier he had hinted to Congress that his government will expand Indigenous land: “Each demarcated land is a new area of environmental protection. We owe respect to native peoples. We will repeal all injustices against Indigenous peoples.”
Indigenous people are essential to Lula’s goals of zero deforestation, an end to the expansion of the agricultural frontier, and the protection of all of Brazil’s major biomes, which include not only the Amazon rainforest, but also the Cerrado savanna, the Pantanal wetlands, the Atlantic Forest, the Pampas grasslands, and the semi-arid Caatinga. This is a historic change of direction. Since the first European invaders arrived more than 500 years ago, Brazil’s place in the global economy has been defined by resource extraction and ever-deeper encroachments into biomes and Indigenous lands.
Lula has created a new Indigenous ministry, the first in the country’s history, which is headed by Sonia Guajajara. She has vowed to make the crisis in Yanomami lands “an absolute priority.” The first response is humanitarian. The government has flown in food packages to this hilly region that spans the border with Venezuela and is home to almost 30,000 Indigenous people. Thousands of doctors and nurses have volunteered to help the victims. Lula visited the nearest major city, talked to Yanomami leaders, and declared an emergency.
Longer term, though, the solution will require a demonstration of force by the state to drive out the invaders and restore the environment. This is essentially a battle to reclaim forest land that the government had failed to protect from an onslaught by heavily armed gold mining gangs. That conflict has been fought for decades and appeared to have been all but lost under Brazil’s previous president, the far-right, pro-mining, former army captain Jair Bolsonaro. Driving out the invaders will require political adroitness, considerable resources, and the backing of the army — none of which are guaranteed.
A report last year showed the area of illegal mines in Yanomami territory had nearly tripled over the previous three years.
Wildcat gold prospectors, known as garimpeiros, have modernized faster than the state in recent years. The adventurous panners of yore are increasingly being replaced by criminal gangs, often experienced in narco-trafficking, who are heavily armed and equipped with dredgers and bulldozers. They have long targeted Yanomami territory, which has rich mineral resources. The first major invasions occurred after the first roads were built in the 1970s, bringing tens of thousands of miners to the land along with a wave of malaria and the polluting of rivers by mining chemicals and human waste. After Yanomami territory was demarcated in 1992, the miners were driven out by the military.
They began returning about 10 years ago and their numbers have exploded in the past five years. Nobody is exactly sure how many operate in this area of 37,000 square miles, but the Hutukara Yanomami Association issued a report last April showing that the area of illegal mines, which can be measured by satellite, nearly tripled over the previous three years to cover 8,085 acres.
Deforestation is not the biggest problem. Rivers became contaminated with mercury, a chemical used by miners to separate gold. This heavy metal vaporizes into the air and then falls into the earth and river systems, where it enters the food chain and can cause serious health problems, including fetal abnormalities and neurological and motor problems. Studies have shown a clear link between mining and exposure to this toxin. In one Yanomami villages, 92 percent of the residents have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood.
Communities are contaminated in other ways. The bigger mining camps have their own airstrips, bars, and shops and provide internet access. Many young Yanomami are sucked in to work as miners or prostitutes. This has led to the sexual exploitation of children and the spread of disease. Between 2014 and 2021, cases of malaria, which is spread from miners to the Yanomami by mosquitoes, increased more than sevenfold, from 2,928 to 20,394. This deprives villages of able-bodied community members for hunting and tending fields of manioc and bananas.
Food insecurity has long been a problem in this region, but the challenges of securing nutrition have been made more difficult by the arrival of the miners, whose machines drive prey animals deeper into the forest and whose chemicals contaminate fish. Worsening the problem is the violence between miners and threats to visiting outsiders, which has scared off government health workers and led to the closure of health centers on more than a dozen occasions.
This ought to have been a moment for the state to step up, but under Bolsonaro it stepped down. The former president — who had tried his hand as a garimpeiro during his youth — weakened surveillance agencies, spoke favorably of mining, and introduced a bill to allow gold prospecting in Indigenous territories. For the miners, this was not just impunity, it was encouragement. At the same time, the government weakened health care for the Indigenous communities affected and scaled back data collection, which left some remote communities effectively invisible. Three years ago, Brazil’s biggest environmental NGO, Instituto Socioambiental, issued a report accusing the government of abandoning the Yanomami.
For the new government, getting the miners out of Yanomami lands is far more of a challenge than bringing food and medicine in.
With the new Lula government, that has changed by 180 degrees. But getting the miners out is far more of a challenge than bringing food and medicine in. The government said this week it is planning a mega-operation by armed forces to clear some of the camps, which will involve armed police and environmental protection agents, backed by the army, destroying equipment and burning buildings. This has been done in the past, even on occasion during the Bolsonaro administration, but such short-term shows of force have little effect unless combined with a strategy to prevent repeat invasions, according to Hugo Ferreira Netto Loss, the environmental analyst and director of the National Association of Environmental Public Servants.
Plans already exist to choke the miners’ supply routes by establishing a strong base on the main rivers leading into Yanomami land. This will force illegal miners to use more expensive air supply routes, which will have to circumvent army bases close to the edge of the territory. “If a military aircraft flies over the mine every day, all day long, then the miners won’t be able to stand it, and the mining activities will be finished,” he said.
Even before the planned operation takes place, there has been violent opposition to this and other new policies. This was evident one week after Lula’s inauguration, when Bolsonarist mobs rampaged through the presidential palace, Congress, and Supreme Court. Lula immediately blamed the carnage on “illegal miners” and “evil agribusiness.” While there were clearly many other motives, it has emerged that some of the participants and funders of the attempted coup were businesspeople who have profited from the lax oversight of the Amazon over the past four years.
An illegal gold mining operation on Yanomami lands in December 2022. VALENTINA RICARDO / GREENPEACE
The question now — in the aftermath of both the Yanomami crisis and the attempted coup — is whether the police and military will follow Lula’s orders. Both institutions were seen as close to Bolsonaro, whose cabinet included several generals. Several senior security officials have been sacked or replaced. But in Brasilia, there are elements that would like to unseat Lula. And in Roraima — the state encompassing most of the Yanomami land — there are reports that senior officers are in the pay of illegal mining gangs. The pro-garimpeiro Roraima governor, Antonio Denarium, has also proposed local laws making it illegal for public officials to destroy mining equipment. This week, he raised the temperature even further by stating the Yanomami “can no longer live in the middle of the forest like animals” — a phrase that has been widely condemned.
All of which suggests that the battle for the health of the forest and its people has only begun. Joenia Wapichana, the first Indigenous head of the Indigenous affairs agency, told us she is confident this will be a turning point and that those responsible for the suffering of the Yanomami will be punished. “We are in a new era,” she said.
Jonathan Watts is global environment editor for The Guardian and founder of the trilingual, Amazon-based newsletter Sumaúma. Talita Bedinelli is an award-winning editor of special projects at Sumaúma. She was previously a data journalist and editor at El País Brasil and Folha de S.Paulo.